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Standards and Guidelines - Forensic Science Communications - April 2008

Standards and Guidelines - Forensic Science Communications - April 2008

April 2008 - Volume 10 - Number 2


Standards and Guidelines

Best Practices for Archiving Digital and Multimedia Evidence (DME) in the Criminal Justice System

Scientific Working Group on Imaging Technology (SWGIT)

Introduction | Archive Creation | Archive Maintenance | Data Migration |
Archive Retention Periods
| Discipline-Specific Issues | Suggested Readings | References | Notes | Disclaimer


It is essential that agencies store their digital and multimedia evidence1 (DME) in such a way and under conditions that will permit access when it is needed. Archiving is the process of storing data in a manner suitable for long-term availability and retrieval. The archiving process is more than simply the preservation of physical media. In cases where archiving is desired, it should be planned for from the moment the DME is generated, processed, or seized.

This document is intended to familiarize the reader with issues surrounding archiving DME and suggests best practices for establishing and maintaining an archiving program. This document does not cover archiving administrative documents or public records but may prove useful in archiving nonevidentiary images, video, and related files.

Why Archiving Is Needed

Archiving is needed to ensure that stored DME is available for future use. The techniques employed should be chosen to ensure that data can be located, accessed, and used. DME sometimes is required to be stored for long periods of time according to statutory requirements and/or departmental policies and regulations.

What Should Be Archived

Agencies should archive DME that they are legally permitted to possess and that may be required for future access. It may be necessary to retain original software and hardware or to transfer data from one type of media to another, in order to access archived DME in the future.

Archive Creation

Archive Standard Operating Procedures

Departments should ensure that a written archive standard operating procedure (SOP) exists and is implemented. (This SOP does not have to be a stand-alone document.)  The SOP should take into consideration the department’s long-term goals, planning, and needs. New technologies, court precedents, and changing circumstances may dictate an SOP change. All previous versions of SOPs should be maintained for reference.

Physical Plant

Physical-plant concerns are multifaceted. One of the biggest issues is environmental factors that can have an adverse effect on the archive. Some of these factors include temperature and humidity control, electrical surge protection, fire suppression, natural-disaster preparation, and electromagnetic field mitigation. The use of a secondary off-site storage facility is encouraged to provide a backup to the primary archive facility.


To ensure the integrity of the archive, the agency must address security policies and procedures. Security policies should address such issues as physical- and electronic-access tracking, limitation of access, virus detection, and data suitability. If an archive contains DME requiring a chain of custody, this issue should be addressed as part of agency policy and procedures.


As technology progresses and hardware and software are upgraded or changed, it is possible that the original hardware and software used to create/access the DME may need to be retained in functional condition to ensure accessibility. This is especially true in the case of proprietary systems.


In the field of imaging technology, photographic plates, films, and photographic prints have been shown to be appropriate media for archiving purposes, provided they are developed and stored according to industry standards. Videotape has also demonstrated the ability to be stored for long periods of time without degradation when stored correctly. There are many types of media to which DME data can be written for archiving purposes. These include optical media (including CDs and DVDs), magnetic tape, and servers, which may or may not include redundant arrays of independent disks (RAIDs). Serious consideration should be given to the type of media chosen for archiving.

Many law enforcement agencies have chosen to use optical media as an interim solution for storing DME. Concerns about the actual-versus-theoretical lifespan of optical media have been raised. The lifespan of optical media begins at the time of manufacture, not at the time they are first placed into service. While optical media have been shown through common experience to be sufficient for short- to moderate-term storage, they are inadequate for archiving. However, optical media used for any length of storage should be designed specifically for archival purposes, and multiple copies should be maintained. Rewritable optical media should never be used for archiving because they have the shortest lifespan. Steps should be taken to ensure the serviceability of the optical media used by periodically testing and refreshing as required. (In the refreshment process, data from the original media are copied onto new media.)  When media are refreshed, multiple copies still need to be maintained. This process should continue until the DME is placed onto a different type of media, as technology advances, or until the data are to be purged.

Some types of magnetic tape have been shown to be a reliable option in the long-term storage of data, provided the media are refreshed as required per manufacturers’ guidelines. At the time the archive is being planned and the use of magnetic tape archiving equipment has been determined, consideration should be given to using a magnetic tape format designed specifically for long-term archiving purposes. Many of these devices use hardware and/or software compression in their storage of data. Compression concerns are addressed elsewhere in this document.

RAIDs can be implemented using different configurations, which have varying levels of redundancy and fault tolerance. For example, RAID Level 0 provides for no redundancy or fault tolerance, whereas other levels of RAID provide for excellent redundancy and fault tolerance. When RAIDs are used, agencies should determine their long-term needs and resources and choose the appropriate RAID configuration for their archives.

Media Preservation

The advantages and limitations of storage media—such as the unknown lifetime of optical disks, print fading, hard-drive volatility, and other manufacturer research data—should be understood and incorporated into the archival structure. Agencies should use media recommended for long- term storage when archiving data; in cases where servers are used, it may be necessary to have a backup solution. Media should be handled and stored in a manner consistent with the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Data Transmission

When creating an archive, consideration should be given to the individual file size to be archived and the bandwidth available on the network in which the archive is established. Large or numerous files being transferred across a network may influence network performance. If the archive is not a dedicated system, then the transfer rate of the network may be adversely affected.

Data Management

The integrity of the DME to be archived should be verified both before and after the creation of the archive.2 Archived DME should be readily accessible via cataloging and indexing. The metadata3 can be very useful for facilitating broad and accurate searches of the archive. Therefore, metadata always should be archived with the data. Storage facilities should be adequate in size for the data to be maintained as well as to allow for growth. (DME files can be very large in size, and as technology increases, file sizes will increase dramatically.)

Data Compression

Generally speaking, there are two ways to approach the compression of data within the archive: hardware compression and software compression. When compression is used, it is imperative that the hardware and/or software used to decompress the data be archived.

Compression can be either lossless or lossy in nature.4 Where practicable, it is recommended that data contained within the archives not be compressed. While lossy compression may not render an image unusable, such compression schemes are not recommended. (This is not to say that DME that was originally created in a compressed format cannot or should not be archived.)  File type and content should be considered when determining the amount and degree of compression to be used.

When SOPs call for the conversion of proprietary formats to open-source formats, it is advisable to use uncompressed formats when possible. If a compressed open-source format is selected, lossless compression is highly recommended. As described above, less compression is best if the file must be compressed.

Archive Maintenance

As new versions of hardware and software are released, backward compatibility is not always ensured. Newer versions of software and hardware will not always be able to access the older data. It is necessary over time to ensure that the newer versions of software and hardware will be able to access the older data. Archivists should be aware that software providers occasionally cease support for their proprietary file formats. Long-term retrieval capabilities require that both original hardware and software be archived.

Hardware and Media

Maintenance of physical devices and/or media may require preventive maintenance on a periodic basis per manufacturers’ and industry recommendations. This maintenance should be planned for at the time the archive is developed. Hardware and media should be periodically checked and/or tested for operability and serviceability. If it is found that the hardware or media are no longer serviceable or obsolescence is foreseen, steps should be taken to migrate all data to a proven, stable storage solution as soon as possible. If failures are detected, the possibility of batch failures should be investigated.


Because certain file formats or proprietary software may become unusable as technology progresses, this software should be archived as necessary to ensure accessibility of DME created by the software.

Reverse Compatibility and Interoperability

Reverse compatibility is the ability of newer versions of software and/or firmware to access older file versions. Interoperability is the ability to access data across platforms or applications. These issues should be considered when upgrades to hardware and/or software are planned.

It should be noted that upgrades to the computer operating system may cause installed programs to operate erratically or not at all. When upgrading, it is recommended that the new operating system be tested on a similar type of computer system prior to implementation into the archive system. It is recommended that when the operating system is upgraded, previous versions be archived.

Data Migration

From time to time, it becomes necessary to move data from one type of media to another or to newer media of the same type.

Media Obsolescence and Lifespan

As technology progresses, media storage will evolve. Older versions of media may no longer be readable or supported and will become obsolete. To ensure uninterrupted archive capabilities, it may be necessary to migrate the DME to current media. Additionally, no media have been shown to be completely permanent. A schedule should be implemented to periodically rewrite DME to new media based on industry standards and/or an understanding of the limitations of media.5

File Formats

Proprietary formats are formats that are primarily supported by the company producing them. These formats may not be supported as new applications become available and as technology improves. When possible, DME should be retained in its original format and in a nonproprietary format. Additionally, the original accompanying proprietary software should be retained for future accessibility as addressed above.

Archive Retention Periods

Legal/Departmental Retention Requirements

The type of DME and its retention periods may depend upon statutory requirements and/or departmental policies. These may be different, but the longer time will take precedence. Some mechanism should exist to identify this time period and should be included in departmental SOP.


Legal requirements, storage-space issues, and departmental policy may dictate a purge (complete destruction) of archived DME. The method(s) used should be adequate to ensure that the purge of the data and/or media is accomplished. Proper means of verification should be incorporated into the methodology and documentation of the purge and include the method(s) used and when it was accomplished.

Discipline-Specific Issues

Some disciplines may have unique requirements or special circumstances related to archiving and should be considered at the time the archive is planned. File size, proprietary file types, specialized software, metadata, interoperability, and bandwidth are all factors that need to be considered. Close collaboration between discipline subject-matter experts, administrative personnel, and information technologists is required to ensure that appropriate archival methods are implemented.

Suggested Readings

The following SWGIT and SWGIT/SWGDE documents may be accessed at


Section 1

Overview of SWGIT and the Use of Imaging Technology in the Criminal Justice System

Section 2

Considerations for Managers Migrating to Digital Imaging Technology

Section 3

Guidelines for Field Applications of Imaging Technologies in the Criminal Justice System

Section 4

Recommendations and Guidelines for Using Closed-Circuit Television Security Systems in Commercial Institutions

Section 5

Recommendations and Guidelines for the Use of Digital Image Processing in the Criminal Justice System

Section 6

Guidelines and Recommendations for Training in Imaging Technologies in the Criminal Justice System

Section 7

Recommendations and Guidelines for the Use of Forensic Video Processing in the Criminal Justice System

Section 8

General Guidelines for Capturing Latent Impressions Using a Digital Camera

Section 9

General Guidelines for Photographing Tire Impressions

Section 10

General Guidelines for Photographing Footwear Impressions

Section 11

Best Practices for Documenting Image Enhancement

Section 12

Best Practices for Practitioners of Forensic Image Analysis 

Section 13

Best Practices for Maintaining the Integrity of Digital Images and Digital Video

Section 14

Best Practices for Image Authentication

Section 15

Best Practices for Archiving Digital and Multimedia Evidence (DME) in the Criminal Justice System


Proficiency Test Program Guidelines


Guidelines and Recommendations for Training in Digital & Multimedia Evidence


Recommended Guidelines for Developing Standard Operating Procedures


SWGDE and SWGIT Digital & Multimedia Evidence Glossary


Byers, F. R. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs: A Guide for Librarians and Archivists [Online]. (October 2003). Council on Library and Information Resources, Washington, D.C., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Washington, D.C. Available: or

U.S. Library of Congress. Collections Care and Conservation. (Includes information on photographs, magnetic media, recorded sound, and film.) [Online].

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Preservation and Archives Professionals [Online]. (Available: (Includes storage and conservation concerns and technical information.)


  1. Analog or digital media, including, but not limited to, film, tape, magnetic and optical media, and/or the information contained therein. See SWGDE and SWGIT Digital & Multimedia Evidence Glossary.
  2. See SWGIT Best Practices for Maintaining the Integrity of Digital Images and Digital Video.
  3. Metadata is information about the associated file or data. See SWGDE and SWGIT Digital & Multimedia Evidence Glossary.
  4. Compression of a file is the process of making the file smaller in size. Some compression schemes result in the loss of data, whereas others do not. SeeSWGDE and SWGIT Digital & Multimedia Evidence Glossary.
  5. See Byers, F. R. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs: A Guide for Librarians and Archivists [Online]. (October 2003). Council on Library and Information Resources, Washington, D.C., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or Washington, D.C. Available: or